China’s ‘Lipstick King’ tearfully apologizes after online spat highlighting country’s economic woes

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

One of China’s most popular livestreamers has offered a teary apology after getting into a viral online spat in which he questioned whether a viewer had been working “hard enough” to make enough money to afford a product he was selling.

The backlash highlighted the ongoing economic challenges faced by workers in the world’s second largest economy, which is experiencing record youth unemployment, a slump in export demand and tepid consumer spending.

Li Jiaqi, who has 76 million followers on Taobao’s livestreaming platform, is one of the country’s biggest internet celebrities. He once sold 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes during a sales competition against Alibaba founder Jack Ma, winning himself the nickname “China’s lipstick king.”

On Sunday, the 31 year old sparked controversy online after dismissing comments from a viewer who said that an eyebrow pencil costing 79 yuan ($10.80), made by homegrown Chinese brand Florasis, that Li was selling during a livestream was too expensive.

“Expensive? The price has been the same for so many years. Don’t talk blatant nonsense. It’s difficult for domestic brands [to survive],” he said during the session, according to a video clip widely circulated online.

“Sometimes [you] should look for your own reasons, whether your salary has increased after so many years, and whether you have been working hard enough,” he added.

Li Jiaqi attends a livestreaming ceremony in the Chinese city of Hangzhou on September 23, 2021.

The comments quickly went viral on social media, drawing criticism from many users saying his words were “hurtful” for those struggling to earn a living in a bad economy.

“We work so hard to earn 3,000 yuan ($411) a month. It’s easy for them celebrities to make money!” one user commented on Weibo, China’s version of X. “We also want a raise and a good job.”

“Sure enough, becoming a capitalist is different. You’ve forgotten how you climbed up. The seller stopped selling goods and started educating us consumers,” another Weibo user said.

China’s litany of economic problems includes joblessness among young people, which has gotten so bad that the government stopped publishing the data last month.

On Saturday, the consumer price index was up just 0.1% in August, below market expectations. The producer price index fell by 3% year on year, down for an 11th month in a row, as prices remained weak in the industrial sector.

‘Really sorry’

The deluge of criticism prompted Li to apologize several times, saying on Monday morning that he had made some “inappropriate” comments that made everyone uncomfortable.

“I know that it’s not easy for everyone to work. What I said did not live up to netizens’ expectations. I am really sorry,” he said.

But the apology failed to calm his critics. Li has lost supporters. His followers on Weibo, China’s version of X, has fallen by 1.1 million to 29.3 million since he made the comment on Sunday.

And the debate has mushroomed, with scrutiny extending to Li’s personal income, his mental health and even what 79 yuan means for ordinary people in China.

Many online users questioned whether Li, a sales superstar for many years, was particularly harsh because he was simply tired and stressed out. The topic “Li Jiaqi and work burnout” gained 140 million views and generated 15,000 posts with the hashtag on Tuesday.

“A top anchor at his level must be sophisticated and tactful,” a top post said. “Coupled with the previous cake incident, he must know what to say and what not to say. But he still said [it], and it was obvious that his reasoning could not keep up with his emotions when he said it.”

Last year, Li mysteriously disappeared from the internet for three months after he showed his audience a cake shaped like a tank, in what many believed was an oblique reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Li hasn’t replied to a request for comment.

The hashtag “what 79 yuan means for commoners” has also been trending, with many social media users saying that it’s enough to cover their living expenses for a few days.

‘Soul searching’

On Monday night, Li apologized again during a live-stream.

“I should never forget where I come from and shouldn’t lose myself,” he said in a choked voice, with tears streaming. “I have been doing soul-searching these two days, and I am sorry to let everyone down.”

“I sincerely accept everyone’s criticisms and suggestions. I will think clearly about why I want to do this … and what I can do to serve more girls.”

The latest apology has gained 460 million views and generated 21,000 posts by midday Tuesday.

The criticism has prompted some online celebrities to defend Li.

“We must allow people who live broadcast every day to occasionally say the wrong thing,” said Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief for Global Times.

“If we ask Li Jiaqi to have extraordinary calm and self-control, he will no longer be interesting and his live broadcast room will become dry,” he said. “If the entire public opinion field advocates such harshness, it will backfire on our collective interests.”

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